Welcome to this instalment of Rapid Fire, my ongoing series of quick interviews with Black Library authors talking about their new releases. These are short and sweet interviews, with the idea being that each author will answer (more or less) the same questions – by the end of each interview I hope you will have a good idea of what the new book (or audio drama) is about, what inspired it and why you might want to read or listen to it.
In this instalment I spoke to Robbie MacNiven about tackling the Ultramarines in his latest 40k novel Blood Of Iax, which is available to order right now in hardback, ebook and audiobook formats.
As usual, let’s get straight to the questions and Robbie’s answers.
Track of Words: What’s the elevator pitch summary for Blood of Iax?
Robbie MacNiven: Two Primaris Ultramarines – an Apothecary and a Chaplain who were born blood-brothers before their induction into the Chapter – find themselves on the wrong end of a Waaagh! led by a Frankenstein-esque monstrosity of an ork warlord who has particularly dark designs for one of the two brothers.
ToW: Without spoiling anything, who are the main characters and what do we need to know about them?
RM: In the blue corner we have the brothers Kastor and Polixis (high five to those of you who like your classical history). Kastor is the younger of the two, a Primaris Chaplain full of fire and angry certainty. Polixis is slightly older, a Primaris Apothecary, more measured and weighed down by his duties and experiences.
In the green corner there’s Urgork, a patchwork beast of an ork warlord, sewn and stitched together by the mad genius of his ever-present painboy attendant. He’s seeking a particular cure for his ‘speshul kondition’.
ToW: Where and when is it set?
RM: It’s set on the industrialised world of Ikara close to the current timeline date, so a bit shy of a century beyond the events of the Gathering Storm.
ToW: Is there anything that you’d recommend readers check out before reading this?
RM: Kastor and Polixis made their debut in the short story A Brother’s Confession, which appeared for free in a White Dwarf a few months back, and is still available as an eshort on the Black Library website. Beyond that Guy Haley’s excellent Dark Imperium should give you the ultimate primer for both the Ultramarines and the new grimdark of the current, advanced setting!
ToW: Why this story? What made you want to write this in particular?
RM: My editors approached me about a year ago to ask if I’d like to do an Ultramarines Primaris novel. I wanted a fresh angle – the Ultramarines are pretty well established, after all! We quickly hit on the idea of doing the story from the perspectives of an Apothecary and a Chaplain who’d been brothers even before being inducted into the Chapter – none of those ideas had really been tried before. I loved the concept, and really wanted to explore more of the ‘daily routine’ of the likes of an Apothecary and a Chaplain. Their extra duties certainly make a change from the norm experienced by most Space Marines.
ToW: What were your main influences when writing it? Did you draw upon any real-life experience to help you plan or write it?
RM: My main influences, perhaps unsurprisingly, were Graham McNeill’s Ultramarines novels. Warriors of Ultramar was the first Black Library novel I ever read, aged 11. It fired my imagination and helped chart my course to becoming a writer a bit over a decade later.
Trying to make Polixis a believable Medic-in-Spaaaace while knowing nothing at all about medicine was challenging, but I had a few sources to draw on – I once proofread a GP friend’s hospital-based mystery novel, and my university flatmate is a veterinarian (no cyber mastiffs were harmed in the making of this book). That and watching all the medic scenes from stuff like Band of Brothers and Hacksaw Ridge got me by!
ToW: How did you find writing Ultramarines, compared to the rather more wild and feral Chapters you’ve written about before?
RM: They were great. As a history student I’ve always been drawn to their Roman aesthetic, and I may well have overdone it a bit! I had a lot of fun trawling through popular Roman names and lifting or tweaking 50-odd to name the entire Ultramarines strike force in the novel! I also took some inspiration from how the Imperial Fists were handled in The Beast Arises. They’ve been singled out before for unfair accusations of blandness, but the likes of Dan Abnett showed that with just a few tweaks you can make any force or faction pretty fascinating.
ToW: How does the final product compare to your original concept? Has anything changed much from your first ideas?
RM: It’s pretty close. After establishing the Kastor and Polixis’ dynamic and the nature of Urgork and the greenskin invasion, I think it all fell into place quite neatly.
ToW: How does this story compare to the rest of your work? Is it a familiar style, or a departure?
RM: It’s familiar in many ways, but I do think it’s the most sweeping war-centric story I’ve told yet. That may sound par the course in 40k, but I tried to provide a lot of viewpoints across the spectrum of the novel’s action – we see Imperial Guard from various different regiments fighting alongside the Primaris and how they deal with their presence, and we see things from the perspective of almost every squad in the Ultramarine strike force. We also get a flavour of both the top-down military response to the conflict with the orks, and a bottom-up ground-pounding view of the action. I’m glad I managed to convey so much of the conflict from different angles, and I hope it pays off for the reader.
ToW: Do you have plans to continue any aspects of this story, or is it a standalone piece?
RM: It’s standalone for now but I’d certainly like to continue it, mainly to further flesh out the different squads and characters from the strike force, as well as document Kastor and Polixis’ ongoing development. There’s a lot for the Primaris still to learn!
Thanks once again to Robbie for taking the time to answer these questions. As and when I get a copy of Blood of Iax I’ll be sure to post a review, so keep an eye out for that.
If you fancy taking a look at some other Rapid Fire interviews, just click here. If you’ve got any questions, comments or other thoughts please do let me know in the comments below, on Facebook or Twitter, or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.